In my last opinion piece, I argued that we should first prioritize identifying important rice landscapes and provide legal teeth to conserve, utilize and sustain them without burdening the subsistence farmers. Once the natural rice landscapes are secured, we can begin to think of optimizing the use of paddies by using a combination of technologies, expertise, machines and management. This applies to the existing rice terraces, irrespective of being cultivated or fallowed. We have been, however, boxing ourselves within such an approach, one that has failed to deliver the much elusive success. I argue for an outside-the-box approach.

Let us first examine the recent trend in rice production using data from NSB, 2022. For the past five years from 2017-21, there has been a constant reduction both in cultivated area and rice production (Fig 1). From 86,385 MT in 2017, rice production plummeted to 40,508 MT in 2021 indicating a sharp decline of 113%. So has the rice area, declining from 51,368 acres to 24,055 acres in a span of just five years. The only consolation is the more or less constant productivity oscillating between 1.65 to 1.73 tons per acre. Reasons for reduction are not difficult to imagine: lack of labour and water, off-farm work taking away farming hands, wild animal damage and so on.

More alarming trend, however, is the bigger loss of area and production from the top rice-producing districts such as Punakha, Samtse, Wangdue and Sarpang. These five prime rice producers along with Paro contribute over 60% of the total production. All dzongkhags grow rice but Pemagatshel, Haa, Gasa and Bumthang have the least or insignificant area and production.

So how much rice do we consume annually versus the quantity we manage to produce domestically? As we saw in figure 1, we produced 40,508 MT of rough rice in 2021. Milling process will eliminate 40% of it in the form of husk, bran and brokens which we do not consume. That leaves us with 24,305 MT of ready-to-eat rice. In 2021, we imported 79,317 MT of milled rice from India as per the records of Bhutan Trade Statistics (2022). Adding the two gives us our annual requirement amounting to 103,622 MT. That means we are just 24% self-sufficient in rice, making us a net importer of our staple food. Self-sufficiency is the proportion of domestically grown rice over the total rice consumed, including imports. Should we be worried? Perhaps we can reduce the amount we consume from 133 kg per person per year or 365 gm per person per day, by diversifying to other cereals (maize, wheat, buckwheat, millets, oat, quinoa) or even potatoes. Per capita consumption per annum is derived from total consumption by population, which was around 770,000 in 2021. Non-rice cereals are nutritionally superior and easy to cultivate.

If we insist on eating rice exclusively, there must be a give-and-take in the prevailing system of production. We have tried our best to produce more from the area we have, but it’s simply impossible to feed the nation even if we revert all the fallow land into cultivation. We require unconventional and outside-the-box approach to produce significantly more rice to achieve a higher level of self-sufficiency, food security and sovereignty. Basically, we need more rice land to cultivate. The current 4% chhuzhing area (about 25,000 acres) of the total 3% cultivated area (664,000 acres) is grossly inadequate to grow enough food. Other countries like India devote at least 50% of their land to agriculture. Even mountainous Nepal grows food on 20% of its land mass. We need to expand our production base. Can we open up patches of fertile and relatively even forest land to agriculture, or at least swap the existing marginal and forest-surrounded farmland with forest land, without ruffling the feathers of our foresters and environmentalists? Our current forest cover exceeds 70% providing a good buffer before we hit the constitutionally mandated 60%. Land swapping has been thought of in the past but we hesitated to make the move. However, the recent royal initiative of Land Use Certificate (LUC) system for youths is akin to what I am proposing.

How much rice area do we need to produce enough rice? The currently cultivated area of 25,000 acres plus the 35% assumed fallowed land gives us 33,750 acres that can produce 56,000 MT of paddy at an average yield of 1.66 t/acre or 33,600 MT of milled rice. We still fall short of 70,000 MT; to produce this amount we require additional area of over 42,000 acres at the current productivity level. Securing additional chhuzhing area is indispensable if we are serious about severing dependency on imports. To achieve total self-sufficiency will undoubtedly be a daunting task; we can initially target 50% sufficiency and this will halve the rice acreage requirement to 21,000 acres only. If opening up forest land is unfeasible or unworkable, we can embark on conversion and utilization of about 65,000 acres which lie fallow, both as kamzing and chhuzhing. But this will be a challenging task given the scatteredness of fallow lands.

Let us assume we have the additional rice area but how about other production resources – labour, water, inputs? We have to forsake the habit of asking the farmers to produce for us; there are simply not enough farmers to do it. Can we open up a Rice Company to undertake rice farming in a professional way? Why not. The government must obtain and clear the land, establish basic facilities, provide irrigation water, fence etc. The Company, preferably in partnership with a foreign investor, can hire local experts and trained workers (retired agriculturists, CNR graduates, youths to begin with), procure farm machineries, equipment and needed inputs. Rice production and processing must be mechanized, and smart and modern technologies must be employed. It is time that our established business houses in the country give back to the nation by investing in food production. From the experience of FCBL procuring either paddy or freshly milled rice directly from the mills, packaging in Phuentsholing and marketing in the country, Bhutanese seem to prefer such endeavors and fresh taste of rice.

Given the significance and attachment we have for rice, it is my earnest hope and prayer that the incumbent government does more than lip service to agriculture and rice farming. Two of the most urgent initiatives are to firstly provide a policy framework for conservation of rice landscapes backed by legal enactment and enforcement, and secondly facilitate the establishment of a professional Rice Company that can provide employment and food for ourselves. It is tempting to think that we can buy rice any time if we have money can be highly risk-prone; how long can we remain at the mercy of other nations if they decide not to sell to us. There have been several such shocks in the past and there will be in the future. After all, Nu or dollars cannot be ingested in place of rice.

Contributed by

Mahesh Ghimiray,

Formerly Rice Specialist in DoA and currently Lecturer in CNR, RUB